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In Memoriam: On the closure of SKILL, the UKs National Bureau for Students with Disabilities


I’ve written this post as part of Blogging Against Disablism Day, an annual event hosted by the Goldfish. Be sure to check out other contributions via her excellent blog.  This post is about the closure of Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities in the UK, the only pan-disability organisation dedicated to promoting equality for disabled people in education, training and employment.  Approximately two weeks ago the following message was posted to their website:

It is with great sadness that Skill: National Bureau for Students with Disabilities announces that it has ceased operating. Following a period of financial difficulty, Skill’s Board of Trustees has decided that it is no longer viable to keep the charity open. The Chair of Skills’ Board of Trustees, Peter Little OBE said “This is sad day for all of us. We had recently appointed an outstanding new Chief Executive and agreed a clear strategy to reduce our costs and turn around our finances, but in the end time was against us” […] It is hoped that others may step in to fill the gap this has left in the support available.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2011

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2011

Does this constitute a suitable topic for Blogging Against Disablism? Well, read on. Unfortunately, I believe this loss will result in a kind of structural disablism rising unchecked.  In the first place, I had hoped that this closure would elicit some coverage in national Education media, but it appears, to me at least, that current news frenzy dedicated to rises in tuition fees and wider issues of university funding have foreclosed on any coverage of this significant loss to the sector as a whole, and disabled students in particular. And this is a significant loss.

I was not aware of the financial difficulties facing Skill, and I have had few dealings with them directly. In these dealings, however, I have had a privileged view into some of the work they undertook – work that is extremely important – but receives little publicity.  In my PhD thesis I identify Skill’s role consulting on the redefinition of UCAS and HESA’s much disputed disability codes – the cornerstone of the self assessment process that all students face when applying to Higher Education Institutions. In this consultation, they represented disabled students views, in a way no one else, seemingly, can.  But this is by no means the most important work they’ve done.  A recent response to government consultation, an evidence submission on The future funding for Higher Education is more typical of their output and their website  continues to host a myriad of important documents for students and educators.

It is the loss of their expert advisors and staff that is the most worrying development, however, especially within a climate of cuts that are disproportionately hitting disabled people and students across the country.  It is not simply that disabled students are members of both these groups. As the number of disabled students in higher education has grown under the auspices of equality legislation, a serious and unanticipated threat to disabled students’ participation has manifested in the administrative incompetence of the Student Loans Company.

On the 5th of February 2010, the BBC reported that:

Almost 12,500 disabled students in England are still waiting for grants to pay for specialist equipment, figures from the Student Loans Company show.

Disabled students wait for specialist equipment grants (BBC)

Since then, the SLCs failure to process 209,000 student’s grants and loans in autumn 2010, left half of all applicants waiting weeks, and in some cases, months for financial assistance.  This had a direct and disproportionate impact on disabled students, threatening study and subsistence. As the Guardian reports:

At one point last year [2010], 87% of the 4 million calls to the SLC were going unanswered. Disabled students were disproportionately affected, with three-quarters of the 17,000 disabled students who applied for loans failing to receive them three months into the start of term. (Guardian).

Horrifyingly, with a view to the this academic year (beginning September 2011), the same Guardian article reports that the Student Loans Company Faces Ongoing Risk.  The authors note that in 2010 the Student Loans Companry was only responsible for processing the applications of new students. From this year the SLC will be responsible for applications for grants and loans from all students in England. The system was previously administered by local authorities.

In this context, the loss of any disability advocacy seems perilous.  Who will step in to fill the gap?

***update*** As of the 6th July 2011 the Disability Alliance has adopted Skill’s critical services for Disabled Students. Their Skill web space is under construction

Thoughts and comments are very welcome, as always.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 01/05/2011 1:43 pm

    As someone starting at Uni in October … this is worrying. very very worrying. *sighs*.. just have to cross everything and pray, i guess.

    • slewth permalink
      01/05/2011 3:55 pm

      Congratulations on your place at university Kethry, this is an exciting time for you. Good luck with your studies.

      These are worrying times, but please don’t be downhearted. When I ask ‘who will fills the gap?’ I’m not asking a rhetorical question – there may yet be other ways for advocates and students to mobilise, and other organisations that will step up. As yet, I don’t know, hence the post. Hopefully I’ll be able to expand on this subject as I find out more, or as such issues (with the SLC and others) are taken up by more mainstream press.

      • 18/06/2011 5:03 pm

        thanks, slewth.. I’m just now putting the DSA application into place (waiting on a letter from my doctor, should be here in the next week or so), I know I have to go for an assessment, so I just hope it doesn’t take too long. My student finance seemed to get sorted out pretty quickly so.. *fingers crossed*.. see how it goes. 🙂 Thanks also for getting in touch with me to let me know about your reply and Richard’s, below. xx

  2. 01/05/2011 9:48 pm

    Readers of this post might also be interested in what I wrote last week about the possible effects of HE fee rises on disabled students – . I hope to turn this into a bit of a blogging series, as I have much more to say about disability and HE (being a disabled PhD student).

    • slewth permalink
      02/05/2011 11:03 am

      Thanks Naomi. That’s great. Skill themselves maintained an archive of student experiences for students to share As this kind of centralised archive is now unlikely to develop, student blogs and testimonies such as yours (and the Disabled Student Diaries at BBC Ouch! ) will be all the more important.

  3. Natalie R permalink
    02/05/2011 11:24 am

    Hi, I am writing my final year dissertation on disability and human rights, would it be ok to reference your blog? I may not directly quote from it, but would include it in the bibliography and perhaps use some of the sources.

    • slewth permalink
      02/05/2011 11:51 am

      Hi Natalie, please by all means reference the blog. I’m glad it’s of use. Obviously I’d appreciate a citation if you use the blog content directly, but the sources I’ve drawn together are otherwise freely available if you’re pursuing a different angle or line of thought (see the creative commons licence badge in the right menu). Good luck with the writing!

  4. Manny permalink
    02/05/2011 4:26 pm

    nice one sarah on discussing this. It is not nice news. SKILL has been a stalwart for disabled people in HE. They have represented disabled students not only in UK HE, but internationally as well. Their work has definitely made an impact, particularly in pushing forth the inclusive curriculum agenda in HE alongside the QAA and HEA. I am still working alongside those who used to be employed in SKILL, and I will remain so because of their commitment to the cause.

  5. Richard Stowell permalink
    17/06/2011 2:34 pm

    I am not an unbiased commentator, as I was Skill’s first full-time Director 1981-89 (initially it was called The National Bureau for Handicapped Students and was set up largely by disabled lecturers). When it started as an organisation c. 1978 there were perhaps less than 200 disabled students in the whole of further and higher education. The 1980s were an exciting time, as further education colleges opened their doors to students with learning disabilities for the first time, and students with physical and sensory disabilities were making their way into higher education. I remember the first student requiring personal care being accepted into university, and the huge battles to get every college to accept equality of opportunity. There was also the battle (won) to get a realistic disabled students allowance. There were so many people, disabled and non-disabled, who were committed to the cause – and remain so.

    SKILL may have closed, but everyone associated with the organisation, over more than 30 years, should be incredibly proud of what has been achieved. My daughter is applying for uni in 2012, so we are currently trailing around Open Days, and I can see how much has been achieved (and also how much still needs to be done).

    Good luck kethry. You are follwowing in the path of some incredible pioneers, each and everyone of whom, I am sure, would give you the same advice which is to go to university and have one hell of a time.


    • 18/06/2011 5:12 pm

      Richard, reading this, I’m reminded so much of what I was reading when I visited Lucy Cavendish College at Cambridge. Lucy is a mature, women’s only college, and a copy of a book detailing the history of the college (a relatively new one, founded in the ’60s) was left in my room. It talked about some of the prejudice that women had to deal with, whether undergrads, postgrads or teachers. The whole college was a truly inspirational place to visit, and although I didn’t win a place there (which was probably a good thing, I think – but I may apply to study there as a postgrad), it has been inspirational in another sense: Lucy tries to provide a home away from home for the women of the college, the idea that once you get back there from lectures or whatever, you can relax because you’re amongst friends. And I have wondered, more than once, about the practicalities of a disabled college along the same lines – not totally seperate college/university (because segregation doesn’t do anyone any good), but something along the lines of the collegiate systems as run by Cambridge or Oxford (and I think a few other universities do the same thing – Lancaster does, if I recall correctly). I was reminded of all this again just now – that in every step I take through the education system, there are people who have gone before me who have fought for me to be able to do this: people who fought for poor people to have the right to go to university and to receive funding for it; people who fought for women to go to university, and yes, people who fought for disabled people to go to university.

      As for going to Uni and having a hell of a time? I surely plan to do that, although as a mature 38 year old student, it may not be the same “hell of a time” as some of my 18 year old classmates!!

      good luck to your daughter – I hope she gets into the university of her choice, and thanks for your good wishes 🙂

  6. slewth permalink
    06/07/2011 8:45 am

    Thanks for all the posts everyone. This week news has broken that Skill will be maintained by the Disability Alliance (via EA Draffan, see below).

    I’ll be sure to post more as things develop.

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